BUCHAREST, Romania — This year International Roma Day marked 24 years since the day was officially declared at the Fourth World Romani Congress on April 8, 1990. It celebrates Roma culture, history and traditions, bringing awareness to their historical persecution and oppression as an ethnic minority. Today the Roma represent the largest minority in the EU, comprising a population between 2 and 5 million, though due to inexact census results, their population is actually estimated to be somewhere between 10 and 14 million.
While April 8 certainly calls for respect and awareness of Roma people, they are not always embraced thus. On the contrary, Roma—also known as Romani, gypsies, and, somewhat offensively, Cigany—have experienced centuries of oppression, discrimination, and marginalization. Originating in India, the nomadic ethnic group entered Eastern Europe in the 14th century, most likely after the Muslim invasions of the Ottoman Turks.
Bulgarian Roma celebrated the international holiday with live performances, concerts, and tournaments all over the country, demonstrating the rich music, dance, and colorful festivals characteristic of Roma culture. The Roma are known for their elaborate wedding ceremonies, much like the traditional Indian weddings, as well as for developing the flamenco. There are over 325,000-registered Roma in Bulgaria today, making up the third largest, and also the poorest, ethnic group in the country.
Strong prejudices and stereotypes brand the Roma as lazy, untrustworthy, and downright dirty people.
Unfortunately, these social stigmas of and xenophobic attitudes towards the Roma have created deep social tensions, and have left millions of Roma living in utter misery on the outskirts of European cities and towns. To this day Roma people still face discrimination in hospitals, companies, and schools. Moreover, many Roma villages lack electricity, running water, and basic sanitation.
In addition to experiencing extreme poverty, Roma have also been subject to mass exile. European governments have expelled populations of Roma, hoping to make the outcasts someone else’s problem, and thereby only perpetuating the ‘Roma question.’ A recent example of this kind of ethnic purging was in 2010 when French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, planned a national deportation of 10,000 Roma out of France and into Romania and Bulgaria. While President Sarkozy may have found a temporary fix to France’s social dilemma, the long-term solution lies in integrating, rather than expelling the Roma.
Bulgaria is certainly on the right track when it comes to addressing its Roma population. Overlapping with the International Roma Day last week, Bulgaria held a conference in Sofia that focused on “Integration of Roma people in Bulgaria.” Diplomats, mayors, MPs, MEPs, and NGOs all attended the national conference opened by Boyko Borisov, leader of the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (CEDB).
Earlier this month, President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso spoke at the European Roma Summit held in Brussels, Belgium this year. He emphasized that “a society is only strong when it takes care of its weakest members,” and expressed the EC’s commitment to ensuring that more European funds go towards fighting poverty in socially excluded groups such as the Roma.
The EC will allocate EUR 80B for human capital, employment, and social inclusion, financed through the European Social Fund. In addition, 20 percent of the Social Fund will be designated specifically for fighting social exclusion and poverty.
Barroso commended the coastal Bulgarian town of Kavarna for setting a “positive example in the EU for Roma inclusion,” along with other European cities such as Berlin, Germany; Montreuil, France; and Craiova, Romania.
Romania, for one, stands to benefit greatly from Roma inclusion. Roma make up one sixth of Romania’s total population, so instead of marginalizing millions of potential workers and taxpayers, it makes more sense to incorporate them into society, allowing the Roma to contribute to a more productive economy.
A World Bank study revealed that currently 9 out of 10 Roma live in extreme poverty in Romania, and that a third of Roma who seek employment experience discrimination. The study also concluded that if there were more Roma inclusion, the country could gain between 887 million euros and 2.9 billion euros per year. Young Roma can fill the growing employment gap in Romania, and help the country stimulate some much-needed economic growth.
It is difficult to establish successful inclusion programs throughout Europe when there exists such a vicious cycle of distrust and prejudice between Roma and non-Roma populations. When they encounter discrimination in the job market and cannot find employment, Roma resort to begging on the streets and committing petty crimes for survival. This only underpins the stigmas placed on Roma, framing them as crooks and con artists. Roma feel the neglect of the state and hostility of the people, and consequentially return feelings of resentment.
The new allotment of funds promised by the European Commission brings hope to the impoverished Roma communities. The World Bank study also recommended “building up local capacities to manage pro-Roma Projects.” Education and healthcare alone have the potential to raise Roma out of poverty, create a skilled workforce, build up economies, and ultimately mend the social wounds of many Eastern European societies.